Summer 2007 Book Review
review by Ebony Porter
Leavin' a Testimony - Portraits from Rural Texas
University of Texas Press, 2006
303 pps. $34.95"We've gotta help somebody, we gotta give a portion of what you know, of what you have, to the other fellow. This world is fixed so your brother is tied to you- can't go to heaven without him, got to carry him along with you. You can't love God until you love your fellow man. I don't see no color, I love everybody. If I got an enemy, I don't know it."
— Ivory "Pie" Steward
As a guide paddles you down a river, illuminating the ways the water breathes and undulates, pointing out its dangers and tranquilities, its silent bends and sudden curves, she isn't able to tell you what you'll experience on that river, nor what you'll take with you. Patsy Cravens is that guide, taking us into an area of south central rural Texas, into the simple, yet vibrant land of Colorado County-so named for its location on the Colorado River. She guides the reader towards both foreign and familiar ground through her photographic portraits, her delicate observations, the life stories of her subjects and her narratives-which are insightful responses to these people and places.
Entry into a small rural Texas town may come with its predictable small town characters, but you'll be amazed at what is inside the memories of these people, as well as the ways they choose to remember.
Weaving the memories of her own childhood in the same county with those of her subjects, Cravens creates a synthesis between the curiosities of an outsider, and an insider's inquisitiveness to some things foreign. These testimonies are a catalogue of visual storytelling, an emotional platform that ebbs and flows between revelations of disturbing race relations, the strengths of church and faith, the hardships of rural farming-of love, leaving and loss, and of course, the libraries of family histories.
These stories entertain the spirit, and are narrated by the rolling dialect of the land. The testimonies are powerful, moving, animated, and feel for example, as if you're sitting with Lillie Williams on her front porch, a woman who Cravens calls both "feisty" and "sassy."
As she relays her love of work outside, Lillie Williams remembers, "In the spring of the year, when the cotton was comin' up, why, that time I'd get to bust middles. Take a mule or a horse and put him to the plow, and go down that middle and bust that middle. And after a while, and always like that, it'd come a-poppin' open, the bolls. It'd be just like you see popcorn. Open, open, open-then my time had done come. Oooohh - I'd be so glad when I'd see that cotton openin' up, I wouldn't know what to do."
And her portrait is that of a sassy woman (see the image on the front cover), hand on her hip, a clothes pin keeping her cotton dress pinned, her mouth curled into an inviting grin, the lines on her face telling of years outside, working in the unforgiving sun. Her eyes sparkle into Cravens' lens. But while this book is the culmination of others' testimonies, it is a great leap of introspection on Cravens' part. We all learn something about ourselves from another's story and from these stories, Cravens has learned much. To keep the dialogues rolling, she delivers anecdotes from her life on the land, sharp tongued observations and facts that tie all testimonies together. She opens a dialogue into "the system of silence, secrecy, and white privilege," which she felt as a child in this segregated community. She was often hushed and silenced when asking good questions, and only later, learned of the community's complicated, prejudiced climate.
From the curiosities kept as a young girl Cravens has found the courage to re-enter her community with wonderment and exploration, to go into the homes of people who had been quite separate from her in the past. She has somewhat miraculously bridged all the gaps and has made these people her dear friends. Her patience and diligence, her tape recorder and camera, leave a brilliant volume of testimony, both through oral history and through her beautiful photographic documentation. Without the openness and trust established between Cravens and her friends, without their resiliency and a dialogue to set a few things straight, these testimonies would still remain silent.